Dispelling Some Myths: Robin Hood
Robin Hood is a legendary heroic outlaw  originally depicted in English folklore and subsequently featuring in popular culture, literature and film. According to legend, customarily set in England during the reign of King Richard I ‘the Lionheart’, Hood was a highly skilled archer and swordsman. In some versions of the story, he is depicted as being of noble birth, and in modern retellings he is sometimes depicted as having fought in the Crusades before returning to England to find his lands seized by the local Sheriff. In the oldest known versions, he is instead a member of the yeoman class, that is not a peasant, but not a noble either. Traditionally depicted dressed in Lincoln green , Hood and his Merry Men are said to have robbed from the rich and given to the poor.
When the story is traced back to its 14th century beginnings, it becomes clear that the figure of Robin Hood changed over time. The earliest versions would be almost unrecognizable when compared to the green-clad, bow-wielding Robin Hood of today. This really should not come as a surprise after all as the centuries passed, the tale of Robin Hood evolved as England itself did so. With each new iteration, the narrative would absorb new characters, settings, and traits until finally becoming the familiar legend of today.
Through retellings, additions, and variations, a body of familiar characters associated with Robin Hood has been fashioned. These include his lover, Maid Marian, his band of outlaws, the Merry Men , and his chief opponent, the Sheriff of Nottingham. The latter is often depicted assisting Prince John in usurping the crown from the rightful, but absent, King Richard to whom Robin Hood remains loyal. His partisanship of the common people and his hostility to the Sheriff of Nottingham are early recorded features of the legend, but his interest in the rightfulness of the king is not, and neither is his setting in the reign of Richard I. He became a popular folk figure in the Late Middle Ages, and the earliest known ballads featuring him are from the 15th century (1400’s). Since then, there have been numerous adaptations and reworkings of the story over the ensuing years, perhaps even more so with revivals in popular literature, film, and television.
What’s in a name
Robin Hood is considered one of the best-known tales of English folklore. Consequently, his name can be found dotted across the map of England, from the Midlands northward: Robin Hood’s Cave and Robin Hood’s Stoop in Derbyshire; Robin Hood’s Well in Barnsdale Forest, Yorkshire; and Robin Hood’s Bay, also in Yorkshire. But just because his name has been ascribed to a place does not necessarily prove the historicity of the man himself. Whether someone named ‘Robin Hood’ ever existed to become the basis for the tales has been debated for centuries. One significant difficulty with any historical research is that Robert was a very common name in Mediæval England, and ‘Robin’ (or ‘Robyn’) was its very common variation in the 13th century. Likewise, the surname ‘Hood’ (or ‘Hude’, ‘Hode’, etc.) was also fairly common since it could simply refer to either a person who made hoods (a ‘hooder’) or, alternatively, to somebody who wore a hood as a head-covering. It is therefore unsurprising that Mediæval records mention several people called ‘Robert Hood’ or ‘Robin Hood’, some of whom are known to have fallen foul of the law.
There are several documented references to historical figures with similar names who have been proposed as possible evidence of his existence, some dating back to the late 13th century. At least eight plausible origins to the story have been mooted by historians and folklorists, including suggestions that ‘Robin Hood’ was a stock alias used by or in reference to bandits . What follows, therefore, introduces the top candidates vying for recognition as the real ‘Robin Hood’.
Robert Hod of York
The earliest known legal records mentioning a person called Robin Hood (Robert Hod) are from 1226, found in the York Assizes , when that person's goods, worth 32 shillings and 6 pence, were confiscated and he became an outlaw. Robert Hod owed the money to St Peter's in York. The following year he was named ‘Hobbehod’, but also came to be known as ‘Robert Hood’.
Robert Hod of York is the only early Robin Hood known to have been an outlaw. In 1936 L.V.D. Owen floated the idea that Robin Hood might be identified with an outlawed Robert Hood, or Hod, or Hobbehod, all apparently the same man, referred to in nine successive Yorkshire Pipe Rolls between 1226 and 1234. There is no evidence however that this Robert Hood, although legally an outlaw, was also a bandit. It is important to note that, in Mediæval law, just because someone was proclaimed an outlaw did not necessarily mean they became a bandit, brigand or robber. Of course, being deprived of the law’s benefits and protections most likely led many outlaws to pursue a criminal life merely to survive.
Robert and John Deyville
Historian Oscar de Ville suggests that the career of John Deyville and his brother Robert, along with their kinsmen Jocelin and Adam, during the Second Barons' War (1264–1267)  were the inspiration for ‘Robin Hood’. In the years leading up to civil war in England, King Henry III’s autocratic rule, displays of favouritism and his refusal to negotiate had angered his barons. During the Oxford Parliament of 1258, the ‘Provisions of Oxford’ were constitutional reforms intended to resolve the dispute between the king and his barons. The reforms were designed to ensure the king adhered to the rule of law and governed according to the advice of his barons rather than through his favourites. A council of fifteen barons was chosen to advise and control the king and supervise his ministers. Parliament, led by the French-born Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, was to meet three times a year to discuss matters of government. Henry sought to escape the restrictions of the provisions and applied to Louis IX of France to arbitrate in the dispute. Louis agreed with Henry and annulled the provisions. Montfort was angered by this and rebelled against the King along with other barons in the Second Barons' War. After the baronial victory at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, de Montfort took control of the government and rewarded his supporters. John Deyville was duly granted authority over York Castle and the Northern Forests.
A year later, on August 4th, 1265, de Montfort was killed at the Battle of Evesham and King Henry III was restored to power. Deyville and his relatives sought refuge after the battle in the aforementioned Northern Forests. At the same time, a group of rebels held out in the stronghold of Kenilworth Castle, successfully resisting a siege by the King’s forces until a papal intervention convinced Henry to adopt a more conciliatory path. A commission was appointed to draw up an arrangement that would be acceptable to both sides. The resulting Dictum of Kenilworth, issued on October 31st, 1266, offered the rebels the right to buy back forfeited estates, at prices depending on their level of involvement in the rebellion. After initial resistance, the terms were eventually accepted. The Deyville’s however led the remaining rebel faction on the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire where their presence has been linked to Scottish historian Walter Bower’s mention of ‘Robert Hood’ in the aftermath of the Battle of Evesham in his annotations to the Scotichronicon .
While John was eventually pardoned and continued his career until 1290, his kinsmen are no longer mentioned in the historical records after the events surrounding their resistance at Ely. Oscar de Ville therefore speculates that Robert remained an outlaw. Perhaps not coincidentally, a ‘Robertus Hod’ is mentioned in records among the holdouts at Ely. De Ville also points to other connections supporting John Deyville and his brother Robert's exploits forming the inspiration for Robin Hood. These include:
The brothers’ properties in Barnsdale (where Robin is seemingly based).
The brothers’ relationship with Sir Richard Foliot, a possible inspiration for the knightly figure Sir Richard at the Lee who appears in ‘A Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode’. John Deyville's settlement of Foliot’s mortgage worth £400 parallels Robin Hood's charity of identical value to Sir Richard as recounted in the Geste.
The ownership of a fortified home at Hood Hill near Kilburn, North Yorkshire.
The last of these is suggested to be the inspiration for Robin Hood's second name as opposed to the more common theory of a head covering. Although de Ville does not explicitly connect John and Robert Deyville to Robin Hood, he does discuss these similarities in some detail and suggests that they formed prototypes for the ideal of heroic outlawry during the tumultuous reign of Henry III's grandson and Edward I's son, Edward II of England.
Roger Godberd was a Mediæval outlaw whose life it has been suggested is another possible historical basis for the legend of Robin Hood. Roger’s criminal history may be compared to Robin Hood’s, although only small details align with the famous story. Godberd lived in the Leicestershire area in the 13th century, but he also travelled throughout England as an outlaw committing crimes with a group of bandits. Roger lived during the reigns of King Henry III and his son, Edward I. The former's rule has been associated with stories of outlawry and consequently the most plausible time for the setting of the Robin Hood ballads. As already mentioned, Henry’s repressive reign led to the seizure of power by Simon de Montfort who, interestingly, Roger Godberd served until de Montfort was killed in the Battle of Evesham in 1265. In the aftermath of that battle, Godberd was outlawed for fighting against Henry. Nearly two centuries later, in about 1446, Scottish historian Walter Bower claimed that Robin Hood also became an outlaw following the battle. This has led some to reason that Roger Godberd and Robin Hood must be one and the same as both participated in the Battle of Evesham. Essentially, however, there is no solid proof to support such a connection and it is more likely that, once again, Godberd’s life merely inspired elements of the Robin Hood tale.
Robin Hood of Wakefield
The antiquarian, historian and archivist Joseph Hunter (1783–1861) recognised that several different ‘Robin Hoods’, often with variant spellings, peppered the history of Mediæval England. One of the oldest references he found is in a Yorkshire court register, dated to 1226, that cites the expropriation of the property of one Robin Hood, described as a fugitive. Hunter also noted a 1261 reference to ‘William, son of Robert le Fevere member of a band of outlaws’ whom Hunter believed to be the same person. Years later, in 1354, Hunter names a ‘Robin Hood’ being recorded as imprisoned awaiting trial in Northamptonshire. With so many different candidates it seems Hunter eventually determined that Robin Hood had inhabited the forests of Yorkshire during the early decades of the 14th century. He identified two men whom, believing them to be the same person, he equated with the legendary outlaw. One is a ‘Robert Hood’ documented living in the city of Wakefield at the start of the 14th century. The other is one ‘Robyn Hode’ who is recorded as being employed by Edward II of England in 1323.
Hunter developed a reasonably detailed theory implying that Robert (‘Robyn’) Hood had been an follower of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster who had rebelled against Edward II but who was defeated by King at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. According to this theory, Robert (‘Robyn’) Hood was thereafter pardoned and employed as a bodyguard by King Edward, and thus he appears in the 1323 court roll under the name of ‘Robyn Hode’. There is one big problem, however, as it can be shown that Joseph Hunter's Robyn Hode had been employed by the king before he appeared in the 1323 court roll. This alone is enough to cast serious doubt on this candidate’s supposed earlier career as outlaw and rebel.
Robin Hood as an alias
It has long been suggested that ‘Robin Hood’ was simply a stock alias used by thieves. What appears to be the first known example of ‘Robin Hood’ as a pseudonym is dated to 1262 where a Berkshire man called William was given the surname ‘Robehod’ apparently because he had been outlawed. This suggests two possibilities: either that an early form of the Robin Hood legend was already well established in the mid-13th century; or alternatively that the name ‘Robin Hood’ preceded the outlaw hero that we know. So, it certainly seems plausible that the legendary figure of ‘Robin Hood’ was so named because it was deemed an appropriate name for any outlaw.
In the absence of a definitive historical figure, then the search for Robin Hood relies on English Mediæval popular culture, specifically folklore, ballads and poetry. Shortly before Geoffrey Chaucer wrote ‘The Canterbury Tales’, one William Langland penned ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman’ in the second half of the 14th century. Within this Middle English verse is the first reference to ‘Robin Hood’ when a poorly educated parson confesses his ignorance of Latin saying:
‘I kan noght parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it syngeth, But Ikan rymes of Robyn Hood...’
A rough translation might be: ‘I cannot recite the Lord’s Prayer as the priest say it, but I know the rhymes of Robin Hood.’ As Professor of English Studies at the University of Oviedo, J. Rubén Valdés-Miyares, argues: ‘Putting Robin Hood’s name in an uneducated character’s mouth demonstrates that the legend would have been well known to most commoners, regardless of whether they could read or write’ (Valdés-Miyares, 2019).
By the 15th century the legend has developed into the more familiar rebellion against the Plantagenet ruling class. One of the oldest known written ballads, ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ dates to around this time. It is the only early ballad to be set in Sherwood Forest and features one of the best-known members of the Merry Men, Little John. Yet, in this version the villain of the piece is not the Sheriff of Nottingham or ‘bad’ King John but the monk of the title, a corrupt figure who violates the sanctity of the church by betraying Robin to the sheriff. The monk’s subsequent murder by Little John and Much, another of the Merry Men, was justified because of the monk’s corruption and the death seemingly accepted by a Mediæval audience familiar with the brutal and violent punishments meted out to criminals and rebels  (Valdés-Miyares, 2019). Interestingly, these early Robin Hood ballads begin to show a turning of the tables in which the lower classes are able to punish the upper classes through trickery and violence.
It was also in the 15th century that one of the longest ballads, the aforementioned ‘A Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode’, appears and spreads across England. This poem provides the first iteration of the notion of ‘stealing from the rich to give to the poor’ when Robin says: ‘If he be a pore man, Of my good he shall have some.’ It is in the Geste that Robin Hood is attributed the status of a Yeoman of the King. The term ‘yeoman’ is used in Mediæval literature to describe someone whose social standing was higher than a peasant but lower than a knight or man-at-arms . Despite his privileged position, Robin misses the forest and chooses to abandon the Royal court. The Geste has him become an administrator of justice and has him establish a code of conduct to protect commoners oppressed by a feudal regime while allowing the Merry Men to ‘beat and bind’ bishops, archbishops, and, above all, the loathed Sheriff of Nottingham. In the Geste the type of villains has clearly widened to include more figures at odds with the lower classes. As the legend developed it reflects the upsets to the social order that beset England from the 12th century civil war known as ‘The Anarchy’ through to the Black Death and Hundred Years’ War with France in the 14th century. The burden on the lower classes eventually led to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
By the 16th century Robin Hood was becoming a fashionable rogue for even royalty and nobility to celebrate. A story from 1510 claims that Henry VIII of England, then barely 18, dressed up like Robin Hood and burst into the bedchamber of his new wife, Catherine of Aragon (Valdés-Miyares, 2019). It is also during this period that new characters appear in the story, most famously Friar Tuck and Robin’s love interest, Maid Marion. It is thanks to Elizabethan playwright, Anthony Munday, that the outlaw is reinvented as a nobleman, namely Robert, Earl of Huntingdon who, having been disinherited by his uncle, flees to the forest to become ‘Robin Hood’. Munday was responsible for setting the tale in the reign of Richard I, the Lionheart. This not only pitted our hero against the king’s younger brother, John, but setting has become the popular basis for later retellings by subsequent authors. As Professor Valdés-Miyares puts it: ‘No longer was Robin Hood a yeoman; he had been gentrified for new audiences’ (Valdés-Miyares, 2019).
There is no clear historical evidence for a real-life Robin Hood, and no one individual can be clearly identified as the inspiration for the character who has been so popular in English culture from the 14th century onward. Drawing on its Mediæval foundations, the tale of Robin Hood has been repeatedly reinvented for each new audience. The story has transitioned from the earliest ballads and poems to stage plays and ultimately to television and cinema. Each rendition mixes the various familiar elements in new ways often to reflect the prevailing mores of each age. Each retelling adds a little more to the legend as Robin Hood emerges from or returns to the shadows of Sherwood Forest.
Valdés-Miyares, J.R., (2019), 'Who was the real Robin Hood?', National Geographic, Available online (accessed October 3rd, 2023).
1. Probably derived from Old Norse, the Old English word utlaga meant ‘one put outside the law’. The term is a compound of ut ‘out’ and lagu, the plural of lag ‘law’, hence an ‘outlaw’ was a person deprived of the law’s benefits and protections. By the late 14th century, outlawry was the ‘action of putting a person outside the protection of the law by legal means.’ Formerly it was lawful for anyone to kill such a person.
2. According to ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’, written ca. 1510, the green dyed cloth made in the English city of Lincoln was more pleasing than undyed shepherd's grey cloth: ‘When they were clothed in Lyncolne grene they kest [cast] away their grey’.
3. From the late 14th century onward, the term ‘Merry Man’ (n.) meant a ‘companion in arms, follower of a knight, outlaw, etc.’
4. Bandit: ‘a lawless robber, brigand’ (especially as part of an organized band). The term appears in English in the 1590s being derived from Italian ‘bandito’ (pl: ‘banditi’) meaning an ‘outlaw’. ‘Bandito’ is the past participle of bandire meaning ‘to proscribe, banish’, which came from Vulgar Latin *bannire ‘to proclaim, proscribe’.
5. Assizes: ‘a court which formerly sat at intervals in each county of England and Wales to administer the civil and criminal law. In 1972 the civil jurisdiction of assizes was transferred to the High Court, and the criminal jurisdiction to the Crown Court.’
6. The Second Barons' War (1264–1267) was a civil war in England between the forces of a number of barons led by Simon de Montfort against the royalist forces of King Henry III, led initially by the king himself and later by his son, the future King Edward I. The barons sought to force the king to rule with a council of barons, rather than through his favourites.
7. The Scotichronicon is a 15th century chronicle complied by Walter Bower. It is a continuation of historian-priest John of Fordun's earlier work Chronica Gentis Scotorum beginning with the founding of Ireland and subsequently Scotland. Bower began the work in 1440 finishing it seven years later. In its original form, the completed work consists of 16 books, of which the first five and a portion of the sixth (to 1163) are Fordun's, or mainly his as Bower added to them at places.
8. The Third Crusade (1189–1192), also known as the Kings' Crusade, was an attempt led by Philip II of France, Richard I of England and Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor to reconquer the Holy Land after the capture of Jerusalem by the Ayyubid sultan Saladin in 1187.
9. Medieval punishment was deliberately brutal to deter criminality. Likewise, Kings and the nobility, and their representatives, often used violence to punish rebellious peasants. Bodies hanging from the gallows or displayed as a warning at crossroads were familiar sights during this time.
10. In the High Medieval to Renaissance periods a man-at-arms was typically well-versed in the use of contemporary weapons and often served as a fully armoured heavy cavalryman. A man-at-arms could be a knight, or other nobleman, a member of a knight's or nobleman's retinue, or a mercenary in a company serving under a captain. Such men could serve for pay or through a feudal obligation. The terms ‘knight’ and ‘man-at-arms’ are often used interchangeably, but while all knights equipped for war were men-at-arms, not all men-at-arms were knights.